Routine but reasonably entertaining for what it is, Tomahawk Trail (1956) is a Lost Patrol-type B-Western yarn, about a U.S. Cavalry sergeant (Chuck Connors) taking charge of things when his inexperienced West Point-trained lieutenant proves totally incompetent. The results are predictable but like other Bel-Air productions for United Artists, it has a good cast and it's in the capable hands of prolific B-Western helmer Lesley Selander, who eventually directed some 127 features, of which 107 were Westerns.
As with all their other Bel-Air titles, this MGM "Limited Edition Collection" manufactured-on-demand release is presented full frame when it should be 16:9 enhanced widescreen. Likewise, the transfer is grainy and dull at the same time. With no extras and a running time of barely more than an hour, its $19.98 SRP is not exactly a bargain.
En route to Fort Bowie, a U.S. Cavalry patrol runs afoul of Apaches along the deadly "Tomahawk Trail." Worse, their neophyte commander, Lt. Jonathan Davenport (George N. Neise, hammy but very effective) is a vain hothead making bad decisions at every turn. Second-in-command Sgt. Wade McCoy (Connors) tries to be diplomatic, but after the patrol loses its supply wagons, ammunition, horses, and even its mules through Davenport's incompetence and he becomes delirious with sunstroke, McCoy takes over.
The situation goes from bad to worse when distant gunfire suggest Fort Bowie, still a long hike away, is under attack. The patrol gets into a minor skirmish resulting in the capture of two women: Ellen Carter (Susan Cummings), the sole survivor of a raid on Fort Defiance (and the daughter of its commander), taken prisoner by the Apaches; and Tula (Lisa Montell), the daughter of Apache chief Victorio. Davenport thinks their appearance is an Indian trick and wants the women bound and gagged, but McCoy refuses. Ellen insists Tula saved her life and trusts her implicitly.
The patrol, with some of the men in a state of near-mutiny by this point, reach Fort Bowie and find everyone there massacred. The freshwater well has been poisoned and the Indians are certain to return. What will they do?
Tomahawk Trail begins weakly, with the first five minutes consisting of what appears to be grainy stock footage accompanied by incessant narration by Connors's sergeant. It's as if Bel-Air was required to deliver a 60-minute-plus movie but that the first cut ran short, and this filler was added to lengthen the picture. Connors's narration intrudes again, later in the picture, always at odd, inopportune moments, as if plugging narrative leaks. Much of the dialogue is pretty weak, too, as when McCoy insists Davenport is underestimating his opponent: "Mescaleros [Apache] can hear a butterfly ten miles away!"
While Westerns have been down this path myriad times before, the dénouement is a mild surprise, and the performances of Connors and Neise sell the mostly trite material. Neise excelled playing arrogant middle-management types and seems to be relishing this higher-profile-than-usual role, while Connors, still about a year away from The Rifleman, is clearly a star in the making.
Susan Cummings may be less familiar but she gained pop culture immortality speaking one of the most famous lines in television history, "To Serve Man - it's a cookbook!" on an especially memorable episode of The Twilight Zone. Amusingly, upon arriving at the decimated, all-male Fort Bowie, she manages to locate a pair of hip-hugging tailored Cavalry slacks to wear. Harry Dean Stanton (billed as "Dean Stanton") has his first credited movie role as Pvt. Miller, Davenport's toady. It's an unexpectedly large role for the actor at this stage of his career; he gets a lot of screentime and there's even a character arc for him to play off of.
Video & Audio
Tomahawk Trail, alas, is presented full-frame even though shots are very clearly composed for widescreen. Seen 4:3, there's way too much room above the actors' heads, the edges of sets are revealed, etc., while zoomed in to 1.78:1 the compositions are almost perfect. The transfer is also grainy and soft at the same time, frequently resembling a 16mm print. The region 1 encoded disc also offers decent Dolby Digital mono audio, English only with no alternate language or subtitle options. No Extra Features.
Minor but mildly entertaining for its good cast and familiar but effectively told story, Tomahawk Trail is a good Rent It for B-Western fans.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.